Hungry Fire, Hungry Firefighters

September 11, 1994|By REED and WENDY HELLMAN

Vermillion Crossing, B.C. -- Thunder barely rumbled in Vermillion Crossing. A few lonely drops of rain spattered the thirsty meadows and evergreens shrouding British Columbia's Kootenay National Park. Compared with Baltimore's summertime downpours, the storm hardly registered. But even before the last clouds slanted past, smoke began to rise.

"Five lightning strikes in quick succession around 4 p.m." The Parks Canada warden shrugged and hurried off.

A narrow column of dense, gray-brown smoke climbed Mount Shanks and plumed in the turbulence. Three other fires spotted the ridge east of us; a fourth burned to the west above the road. The latest in this summer's 300-plus forest fires began scorching Canada's Rockies.

The big one on Mount Shanks quickly engulfed two or three acres before a Jet Ranger helicopter, contracted by Parks Canada, orbited the blazes. Park fire managers and contract firefighters took a look and declared the burn "temporarily out of reach."

Two initial attack teams rappeled out to monitor and contain the three smaller burns. The parks workers attacked the blaze threatening the parkway, using a hose line and a "Bambi bucket."

The orange bucket dangled beneath the Jet Ranger as the pilot dropped to within feet of the Vermillion River. Turning his chopper upstream and adroitly dipping, he filled the bucket with silty water and raced back uphill to dowse the smoky burn. We stood on the parkway as he roared overhead, splattering us from the bucket.

The fires were first reported from the Kootenay Park Lodge, 10 tidy cabins and a restaurant, halfway up Vermillion Valley. As fire teams spread out, Frances Holscher knew that hungry firefighters would flood her lodge just after dark; she would have to feed her guests and hungry crews.

As she mustered her supplies, she called to us: "Order your dinners now. Once the fire crews get in, they'll eat all we have."

By sunset, we were awash in vermillion. The sun painted the west, and the big burn, still growing, colored the eastern peaks. A dull glow, the shade of iron oxide vermillion clays once mined by Kootenay Indians, underlay a sprawling smoke boil. The mass spread along the timberline. Winking orange lights ascended the mountain like candle-carrying pilgrims. Each detached flare marked a towering evergreen vaporizing in an incendiary crown 300 to 400 feet high.

As the early moon rose, smoke lofted above 8,700-foot Hawk Ridge, joining clouds hanging over the eastern peaks. The Jet Ranger landed one last time and 13 firefighters trudged through lowering darkness to the lodge. The tired crews had been walking out of the bush after three days' fire detail when called to the new blazes.

The fire teams display a distinctive sixth sense-- a constant awareness of each other's location and situation. They move together -- a measured, practiced, tactical movement, not milling like strangers. They file easily into the lodge dining room, sorting themselves around three tables.

Half the group comes from the park's trail maintenance crews; they look like young climbers or backpackers: lean, muscled, all wearing shorts and T-shirts, tennis shoes and sandals. One is a woman.

A few sport long hair or a close-cropped buzz, and one or two have discreet earrings. They fill one table. "The kids' table," the woman names it.

The second table seats five management and shop staff. They are older -- late 30s and early 40s. Two wear orange jumpsuits. Two uniformed wardens sit at the third table, monitoring radios as they eat.

Fighting fires is in all their job descriptions, the same as clearing hiking trails, patching highways or directing tourists.

They talk quietly -- mostly about fires and equipment, this blaze compared to that. One scratches his arm where the devils club whipped him. The head-high plants have thorns on their stems and leaves, and can smother forest slopes. Restrained laughter greets his teammates' sage but impossible antidotes.

As the firefighters relax to their meals, Ms. Holscher and her crew appear tightly wound. She has chosen a classic unexpected-guests-for-dinner meal, cooking large pots of spaghetti and savory sauce.

Richard Liebler, her lead waiter, takes the rush in stride, efficiently getting the food to the tables. Friendly, but clearly without time to chat. Alexandre Colas, manager of the lodge's store, helps bus the dishes. Even the kitchen assistant and the housekeeper scramble to the tables.

The two wardens wolf down their dinners and sit briefly, planning with the seniors. Crews will spend the night on the mountain sitting with the three fires. The hose should hold the west-side fire. After containing the smaller fires, the crews can attack the big timberline burn.

"Get the little fires out," advises one warden. "Then get that big guy."

Their radios crackle, and the wardens leave hurriedly to prepare sleeping quarters for the crews.

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